WASHINGTON — The National Science and Technology Medals were handed out this week here in our nation’s capital. The President presided over a morning ceremony at the White House, and there was a classy dinner in the evening, with the honorees present. I missed the morning ceremony, for I remain after all these years technologically baffled. An invitation was tendered to me, but it came in over the Internet as e-mail. I missed it. The dinner invitation came snail-mail, so I was there, in black tie with pen in hand to record the doings.
America has been riding a surge in scientific and technological innovation for decades, and if anything the surge has grown broader. In past decades we read newspaper account after newspaper account of miraculous innovations that were about to transform our lives. The stories are not as popular today. We have become inured to the miraculous innovations all around us. Moreover some of the latest are so complicated and portend such far-ranging change as to bewilder readers.
Consider the tiny computer chips that might be lodged in our bodies someday, serving the same purpose larger chips now serve in our automobiles. They will notify us when our cholesterol count or some enzyme count signals danger. They will warn us that a knee is wearing out and in need of replacement. Vital organs will be monitored by the tiny computers and replaced in due course by new improved vital organs. Conceivably these chips will keeps us alive forever. As I say, the present surge in science and technology is almost too much to bear.
At dinner the other night whole teams of scientists and engineers were recognized for ingenious inventions and procedures. So were individuals. What attracts me to these awards is that unlike those for the humanities these are harder to fake. They are more dependent on objective evidence. The consequence of each innovation is usually apparent. Politics and lobbying is more difficult in science and technology than in belles lettres or the plastic arts.
Yet this is not always the case. One of the awardees is Bob Metcalfe. He invented Ethernet, which was an early step towards the Internet. Ethernet allowed local area computers to communicate. After that came the vast world-wide communication system that is the Internet. Then came the capacity to search and index documents on the Net that is Google. Metcalfe tells an amusing story demonstrating that this week’s awards are not completely free of politics.
In 1973 he wrote the memo that invented Ethernet. Three years later he with David Boggs had the system up and running. Yet his practical application of the theoretical system he dreamed up in 1973 actually provoked not applause among his engineering colleagues but vexed controversy. Their response to the functioning Ethernet was that it was impossible. Their reason? It was impossible “in theory.” As Ethernet’s use spread there remained engineers that scoffed at it as a theoretical impossibility. That reminds me of the old joke Ronald Reagan used to make at the expense of economists. “Yes,” they might say. A certain policy, say tax cuts, works in practice. “But does it work in the theory?”
Tax cuts, incidentally, and the efficiency of American markets explain the long period of vigorous economic growth that the country has enjoyed since the early 1980s. Yet there is another element, one mentioned by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan frequently. That is the growth in productivity stemming from the surge in scientific and technological innovation that was celebrated this week with the National Science and Technology Medals. The event brought together stars far more worthy of our awe than any stars the world of entertainment might summon to dinner. I actually got to meet Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, the men who took Metcalfe’s Ethernet and made it Internet. I suspect the economic impact of these three men has amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars. What is more, there is no sign the innovations are ending.